Starting a (mini) Add1 Challenge: Toki Pona

Nothing makes you feel quite as dumb as starting in on a new language.

So I’ve been mentioning for like a month now that I’ve had a ‘secret project’ bubbling in the works, and my plan has been to start in on it as soon as I finished off the portion of Riftwar that was available in Spanish, and I put a cap on the series this last Tuesday.  So, here we are, secret project time!  Surprise!  It’s another language!

Okay, so this is something I’ve lowkey been wanting to try for ages for a few reasons.  A common piece of advice that gets tossed around by people who give advice about learning languages online is to take breaks from a language from time to time.  They say that stepping away from a language for a while gives your subconscious a chance to process things that it’s been struggling with, and when you come back, you’ll often see a marked improvement without having done anything.  While that’s made intuitive sense to me, it isn’t something I’ve pursued up to this point, since language learning has been faceted into my life in such a way where I’d feel guilty if I set it aside for a while, and also because it would mean needing to let this blog project fall dormant for a few weeks, neither of which is that appealing to me.

Now, the obvious compromise there would be to take a break from one language in favor of picking up a different language, since I’d continue to be working on language learning, just not on Spanish for a while, which is ultimately what I’ve ended up doing, but that has some less than ideal factors I had to consider.  I could have gone with German or Japanese, two languages I’d like to learn for reasons of personal interest, but the question then becomes how long do I switch languages?

Lots of people go for the Add1 Challenge and devote 90 days to a new one, as that would give me a chance to get at least a toehold in a new language before switching back.  Probably a better toehold in German compared to Japanese, just because it’s more closely related to languages I already speak compared to Japanese, so I have a bigger base to stand on, but I could probably get something to stand on for either choice in three months.  The prospect of an Add1 Challenge has been tempting for me, but there are some ‘philosophical’ problems that have made me extra reluctant.

There’s an attitude among several of the language advice peeps online about language learning, where there’s less interest in learning a few languages deeply, in favor of studying many languages shallowly.  Shallow is perhaps an uncharitable way of saying it, because that implies a superficial level of knowledge, which isn’t something I mean to imply, I just mean it’s literally not to that great of a depth in the language.  And it makes sense for a lot of them, where what they’re interested in is having conversation with many different people.  Which is something they can accomplish to a pretty robust level without needing to get all that deep in a language itself, so why bother getting all that deep in one language if you can get ‘good enough’ in several languages?

Which is a perfectly fine approach to language learning, but isn’t what I’m in it for, so it’s not directly appealing to me.  Sure, it’d be nice to be able to bust out a half dozen languages for friendly, stumbly banter at a bar or something, but what’s interesting to me would be able to deeply communicate with languages other than English.  I’m a writer, I want to be able to write novels in Spanish, not be able to give someone accurate directions to the liquor store, which means needing to be invested in a language for the long haul.

Which I’m fine with doing and all, and nobody said the three month toehold that the Add1 Challenge would give me would mean I was ‘done’ with the new language, it would just be something that I could come back to later and pursue to the level of depth that I want, but at least in the meantime I’d have that toehold to use and cultivate in small ways while focusing on Spanish.  The problem there is the fact that three months is a longer break than I want to take from Spanish in the first place.  This comes back to being interested in that depth, I’ve been working on Spanish for a while and I’ve gotten my level of knowledge on it pretty deep now, deep enough in my reading comprehension that if I could get my listening comprehension up to the same level—followed by my ability to use it spontaneously in speech to a similar level—I’d be willing to consider myself done.  Maybe this means the better option would be to set the idea of a ‘break’ aside and work I getting finished before switching languages, but that’s the option I’ve already been following for months now, and I’m thinking more and more that a break would be healthy for the overall goal.  Just not, you know, a three-month break.  Something smaller, where I could do a micro-project where I could make some real progress on something in the space of several weeks instead of several months.  A language that’s super easy to learn and not terribly complex or exotic.  Perhaps one that’s designed to be picked up quickly. Hmmmm…

So Toki Pona.  Toki Pona is a conlang created by Sonja Lang about twenty years ago as a philosophical exercise in trying to distill communication down in as small a package as possible.  It’s a micro-language with a vocabulary of 120 words that trades specificity for simplicity.  I’ve been aware of Toki Pona for a while (a language nerd being interested in conlangs!?  You don’t say!) and have been curious to try and learn it, but haven’t put in the effort to do so because I’ve been too busy working on Spanish.

Until now.  Toki Pona is kind of the perfect solution to this dilemma for me, because while it will take time and effort to learn, by design it won’t be that much time.  I mean, I can review the entire vocabulary of the language every day, even with my brain being slow and stubborn, I can advance in it quickly.  So after finishing off El Bucanero del Rey on Tuesday, I set Spanish aside and picked up Toki Pona for a while.

How long a while I’m not entirely sure yet, because even though a number of the guides out there for Toki Pona boast being able to teach it in a fortnight, I’m well aware that learning a language is a lot more complicated than learning the definitions of its vocabulary.  I don’t foresee maintaining a focus on it for much more than a month or so (unless it proves to have hidden depths and I get engrossed or something), though I think in that time I’ll be able to establish a position that’s a bit more stable than a ‘toehold,’ which really makes it ideal in comparison to a natural language for the purposes of this break.  Then I’ll return to Spanish, see if things have improved when I wasn’t working on it, and try to push through to that ‘done’ stage I’m aiming for before moving onto the next natural language.

So here we go, starting off on a new, hopefully fun diversion for the next few weeks.  I’m having a good, if challenging time so far, details I’ll go into further below as I recap the week, but it’s still early on, so I’m not sure what to expect.  If anyone out there is curious and wants to learn alongside me, this is the right sort of language where that could be feasible!  I have the official book Toki Pona: The Language of Good by Sonja Lang, but there are a surprisingly robust number of resources online for learning it.  I’ve included a bunch of links at the end of this blog if you’d like to follow along.

Now then, let’s take a look at the numbers for the week.

Tuesday 6/23

  • Duolingo: 20 XP earned, ~0 minutes
  • Reading: 4% of El Bucanero del Rey, ~90 minutes
  • Watching/Listening: 1 episode of Calex MP, ~70 minutes
  • Speaking: reading out loud, ~30 minutes

Wednesday 6/24

Spanish:

  • Duolingo: 20 XP earned, ~0 minutes

Toki Pona:

  • Studying (visual): 1/3 of Toki Pona: The Language of Good, ~60 minutes
  • Studying (aural): 12 episodes of jan Misali, ~60 minutes

Thursday 6/25

Spanish:

  • Duolingo: 20 XP earned, ~0 minutes

Toki Pona:

  • Studying (visual): 1/3 of Toki Pona: The Language of Good, ~60 minutes
  • Studying (aural): 12 episodes of jan Misali, ~60 minutes

Friday 6/26

Spanish:

  • Duolingo: 20 XP earned, ~0 minutes

Toki Pona:

  • Studying (visual): 1/3 of Toki Pona: The Language of Good, ~60 minutes
  • Studying (aural): 12 episodes of jan Misali, ~60 minutes

Saturday 6/27

Spanish:

  • Duolingo: 20 XP earned, ~0 minutes

Toki Pona:

  • Studying (visual): review of Toki Pona: The Language of Good and 3 lessons of o kama sona e toki pona, ~60 minutes
  • Studying (aural): 12 episodes of jan Misali, ~60 minutes

Sunday 6/28

Spanish:

  • Duolingo: 20 XP earned, ~0 minutes

Toki Pona:

  • Studying (visual): 5 lessons of o kama sona e toki pona, ~60 minutes
  • Studying (aural): 12 episodes of jan Misali, ~60 minutes

Monday 6/29

Spanish:

  • Duolingo: 20 XP earned, ~0 minutes

Toki Pona:

  • Studying (visual): 5 lessons of o kama sona e toki pona, ~60 minutes
  • Studying (aural): 12 episodes of jan Misali, ~60 minutes

Total Spanish:

  • Total Duolingo: 140 XP, 0 minutes
  • Total reading: 4% books read, 90 minutes
  • Total watching/listening: 1 YouTube episode, 70 minutes
  • Total speaking: reading out loud, 30 minutes
  • Total Time: 2 hours 40 minutes

Total Toki Pona:

  • Total Studying (visual): 1 book and 14 online lessons read, 360 minutes
  • Total Studying (Aural): 72 video lessons watched, 360 minutes
  • Total Time: 12 hours 0 minutes
  • Combined Total Time: 14 hours 40 minutes

So a pretty different week compared to how this normally goes, but that’s by design, because I have to approach things from a different angle.  I spent the main portion of the blog working up to what I’m working on, but here’s where I can break down the rough plan for how I’m working on it.

First thing out of the way, I’m not going out of my way to avoid Spanish content, and there’ll likely be bits of Spanish that’ll pop up during this project.  Front and center, I’ve continued to use Duolingo in the minimal fashion I have been, so as to not break my streak.  This is overall less than ideal for me, because if I really had my druthers, this super early stage is when I’d be putting in the most effort with Duolingo, but unfortunately, ain’t no Duolingo course for Toki Pona.  Fs in the chat.  As a result, the Duolingo not-actually-spending-any-time slot will continue to be Spanish, I will continue to follow Spanish speakers on Twitter, I’ll probably have a mid-month blog discussing this Toki Pona project in Spanish, etc.  I’m gonna save up the bulk of youtube videos that come out over this time in order to have some good material to pack time up with once I get back to Spanish, but otherwise I’m going to continue to use Spanish in my life, just not focus on improving it.

Next, since I don’t have a Duolingo tree to work through, I get to the main sources of early-going learning to focus on: the book, and online lessons.  For this first week, I’ve spent about half and half of my time bouncing between reading the book and/or online lessons like jan Pije’s online guide o kama sona e toki pona, and the video lesson guide from the conlang-focused youtube channel jan Misali that introduced me to toki pona in the first place.

This might seem like it would have been appropriate for me to keep my tracking scheme exactly the same as before, with ‘reading’ and ‘watching/listening’ both at 60 minutes, but I didn’t list it that way because that’s for time spent on input, and while these lessons are structured in a way that provides both reading and watching/listening input for Toki Pona, they are definitely lessons about Toki Pona delivered in English.  I’ll get back to consuming input later, for now this is the appropriate time for study.

Part and parcel witb that change in activities came an overall reduction in time spent.  I could argue that this is because work’s been a bit busy this week, but in truth, this type of focus and effort is different than consuming media.  I’m shoving unfamiliar vocabulary and grammar rules into my head and it all takes a toll in mental load to do.  Contrast that with watching a television show in a language I know, and it’s obvious why one is exhausting, while the other is purely entertainment.  Not that the former isn’t also entertainment for me, I do like learning languages, but I know my limits and let myself stop and process things for a while rather than just plowing ahead.

This is no more clear than when looking at my review of the 12 Toki Pona lessons that jan Misali gives on his youtube channel, which cover the whole vocabulary and go over the basics on the grammar in the running time of about thirty minutes.  Thirty minutes that consistently take me a full hour to watch, as I pause, rewind, review, and consider carefully in order to try and get the most out of.  Toki Pona might have an extremely simplistic core to it, but its guts are pretty far removed from any other languages I know, so I’m not starting off with the strongest baseline here.

That said, as this week ends, I believe I’m going to be able to move on from this stage pretty soon.  The lexicon is extremely small after all, there’s only so much review of the core that I really need before I can start consuming media that’s produced in Toki Pona.  I have a feeling I’ll get there before the next blog.  That’s pretty exciting for me, it’s been a long time since I’ve been able to see such tangible progress in language learning that I’ve done, even if things are still in the awkward and incomprehensible level now.

Now then, as promised, here are some links for those who might be interested in following along with me on this project.  It’d be fun to have some other people who are also in on it, and as asks go, this one is a lot less of a demand than most ‘learn a language with me’ requests would be.  No pressure, though.

  • Toki Pona Conlang Critic Episode—an overview of what Toki Pona is by jan Misali, which gives a general overview of the language’s deal and was my original introduction to the language.  Also the Conlang Critic show is good, and I recommend it to my fellow language nerds, so sorry-not-sorry if you get sucked down that rabbit hole.
  • Toki Pona: The Language of Good—the corpus for the language, written by Sonja Lang (jan Sonja).
  • o kama sona e toki pona—a comprehensive language course by jan Pije available for free online.
  • 12 Days of Toki Pona playlist—a series of video lessons by jan Misali
  • Where is Toki Pona Used?—a wiki page trying to archive all places where Toki Pona is used and discussed in detail.  All previous links in this list are available there, plus many more. This wiki will likely serve as my go-to source for input once I get to that stage, too.

That’ll do for the starter list, so if you’re feeling like diving in, I’m not too far ahead yet and there’s plenty of time to catch up.  I’m also dense, so you’d probably improve faster than I am, anyway.

Anyway, that’s all I got for this one.  Until next week, TTFN.

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